September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Hollywood films tend to age well. What at the time may have seemed journalistic or lowbrow often displays after the passage of years an unexpected depth and dignity. Take a look at the forgotten movies resurrected on television by American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. Like other artifacts, films acquire a patina. But time, alas, has also treated some allegedly classic movies cruelly.
The most overrated American movie classic? It is a hard choice, narrowing down in the end to Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life , that cloying, saccharine, manipulative fantasy, and, inevitably, Gone With the Wind . On sober reflection, the palm goes to Gone With the Wind .
I am not referring to the obvious ideological issues. There is no point in condemning GWTW for reproducing the stereotypes of its day (1939): for its attitudes toward blacks and women, for its idealization of slavery, and for its caricature of Reconstruction. GWTW fails rather on its own chosen ground. It has an epic theme, the downfall of a brave, haughty, and obtuse ruling class against a backdrop of war and social upheaval. The public moments in the first half still have sweep and vigor: the panic of flight along dusty roads; Atlanta under siege and in flames; the great long pull-away shot of the Confederate wounded lying in the Atlanta railroad yards.
But the second half loses its theme in a morass of romantic sentimentality. It is picture-postcard writing as it is picturepostcard photography (and, for that matter, organ-grinder music). Scarlett and Melanie, the women’s-serial rewrite of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, are too much: one too wicked to be true, the other too good. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is far less interesting as a rendition of a Southern bitch than Bette Davis’s turn in Jezebel or Miriam Hopkins’s Temple Drake. GWTW aspires to opera and achieves soap opera.
The most underrated movie classic? The great director who seems most neglected half a century later is surely Ernst Lubitsch. And of his gallery of wonderful movies— Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner —the most neglected is To Be or Not to Be, that brilliant fusion of farce and melodrama set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
Released in the midst of the war, it offended many. “To say it is callous and macabre,” Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times , “is understating the case.” But Lubitsch, in his portrayal of Nazis as ordinary, dumb jerks doing their job, long preceded Hannah Arendt in understanding the “banality of evil.” In the nearly 60 years since, To Be or Not to Be has acquired a triumphant patina of wit and humanity.